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“A 1989-style movement simply can no longer take place in China”

Thirty years after Tiananmen

Suppress or conceal. China, an aspiring world power, has to date found no other way of dealing with the legacy of the bloodily suppressed protest movement of 1989. Protesters in Hong Kong will mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, however in mainland China this would still be impossible.

Questions to Frank N. Pieke, Director and CEO of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS)

Frank N. Pieke
Frank N. Pieke
Former Director of MERICS (August 2018 to January 2020)

Do people in China still remember what happened thirty years ago? If so, where do they get their information from?

That is very hard to say in general terms. Older people of course remember and won’t forget. Younger people usually know from their parents that something happened thirty years ago, but do not have a clear and systematic picture. The only books available provide the official version of events, everything else is strictly censored, including foreign sources. Chinese students abroad are remarkably ill-informed, but also on the whole not very interested in the movement. It’s something from the past that their parents talk about. But I do get the occasional student or visiting scholar who asks me for all my books on the topic. And they are very grateful that I have kept them.

To date, the CCP has been reluctant to allow a reasonable debate about this chapter of Chinese history. Why?

Allowing a debate about, or even just a candid reference to the events of 1989 would strike at the heart of CCP legitimacy. It would expose the fact that it was not just a handful of counterrevolutionaries, but the general population of Beijing and many other cities who demonstrated against the excesses of CCP rule and demanded a just government. Even worse, it would reveal that the CCP ordered military action against the people in whose name it says it wields power. Expecting the CCP to apologize for what happened would be tantamount to asking the current leadership to admit that the legitimacy of their rule is based on the slaughter committed by their predecessors thirty years ago.

30 years ago, the Chinese government offered the population a kind of deal: economic wealth in exchange for political silence. What is your assessment in 2019: Did the CCP “succeed” in this respect?

Whether we like it or not, the Chinese leadership considers the silencing of the 1989 legacy a success, and an example of how political problems go away simply by not allowing them any expression. For a very long time, the events of 1989 existed in a sort of temporal limbo. They were neither allowed to become an acknowledged part of history, nor part of a contentious political present. However, China has now become a very different society and the CCP a very different regime. A 1989-style movement simply can no longer take place given the much greater stake many more people have in the affluence and stability that the CCP has brought in the past thirty years. The problems that Chinese citizens face today are very different. They are much more specific and individual and are not usually seen to be caused by a morally bankrupt government. Lastly, the CCP has presided over many successes, both domestically and abroad, making it hard to argue that they are unfit to rule the country.

Over the last few years, Chinese authorities have tightened their control over society. How much space do protesters and civil society have in today’s China?

Even before Xi Jinping came to power, the space for civil society and activist-lawyers had been gradually reduced, but in the past few years the government has systematically used outright repressive measures that make it almost impossible to run an NGO or organize events that are critical of the way that the government handles affairs. One problem with this is that the straightforward pursuit of just causes or interests has also been delegitimized. More and more activities have been branded political or subversive, denying the government crucial feedback on its performance and society an outlet for grievances. The same thing is true for the media, universities and public intellectuals. Freedom of expression has been greatly curtailed and discussions can only be held in indirect and opaque ways, if at all.

Given the current situation in the PRC: Do you think nation-wide protests could erupt in the next few years? And if so, how do you expect the current Chinese leadership to react?

I consider this very unlikely. Even without the ongoing development of the social credit system, the regime has become immeasurably smarter and better equipped to deal with any form of protest compared to the past. The government has invested heavily in riot police, social stability funds, and more generally in disaster and emergency management. This doesn’t mean they can avoid protests from breaking out, but it does allow them to contain and prevent them from spreading.

This interview or excerpts may be quoted with proper attribution. 

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